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A common childhood virus
Respiratory Syncytial virus is a virus that infects the respiratory tract and the lungs. Its so common that most children have been infected with the virus by the age of 2.Its the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children younger than 1 year of age in the United States.
In Singapore, its been estimated that RSV accounted for 708 hospitalisations in children less than 6 months old and more than a thousand admissions in children 6-29 months per year.
How RSV spreads?
It enters the body through the eyes, nose and mouth. Spread is usually via respiratory droplets from an infected person. So you and your child can become infected if someone with RSV coughs or sneezes near you. The other method is via direct contact such as shaking hands or even touching a surface or item that has the virus on it like the doorknob or toys.
An infected person is most contagious during the first week of the infection. The incubation period can be 4-6 days after exposure to the virus. Meaning your symptoms can appear 4-6 days after contracting the virus
In healthy adults and older children, RSV symptoms are mild and typically mimic the common cold. In infants and seniors older than 65 and in those with compromised immune system or heart and lung diseases, RSV can cause severe symptoms.
In mild cases, symptoms may include
- bodyache and headache
- runny nose or blocked nose
- sore throat and dry cough
In severe cases, the virus can spread to the lower respiratory tract, involving the lower airway and even the lungs. This can result in
- shortness of breath
- wheezing or ronchi
- severe persistent cough
- prolonged high fever
And in infants, they may present with
- decreased activity
- drowsiness and lethargy
- poor feeding or vomiting resulting in dehydration
- short, shallow and rapid breathing
- even a lack of oxygen where their lips and skin can turn purplish blue.
The good news is most RSV infection goes away on their own within a week or two. Symptomatic treatment is the mainstay of management. Treating the fever and treating the symptoms of flu and cough if any.
And in severe cases, hospitalisation may be necessary for more intensive supportive treatment especially if breathing and oxygenation is impaired.
Complications of RSV infection includes
- pneumonia and bronchiolitis
- middle ear infection called otitis media
- a higher chance of possibly developing asthma later in life.
Some of the best ways to help prevent the spread of RSV (which is very similar to the prevention of COVID-19 infection) includes
- covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze
- avoid touching your face, nose and mouth
- wear a mask when you are unwell
- wash hands often with soap and water
- avoid close contacts such as kissing, shaking hands and sharing cups and utensils with others when you are unwell
- cleaning frequently touched surfaces like doorknobs and toys.
Unfortunately, vaccines are still not available. However, several RSV vaccines are currently under development, so watch this space.
By : Dr Chen Yiming
Family Physician, MBBS (Singapore), GDFM (NUS), GDFP Dermatology (NUS)